Kathleen Turner has achieved great stage success with a single letter. Maggie the Cat. Mrs. Robinson. Martha. Even Mattie Walker, the femme fatale character she played in her scorching 1981 Body Heat screen debut, shares the same “M” moniker.
Now Turner unveils a brassy Texas political columnist she added to the tribe two years ago, as the West Coast premiere of Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins opens tonight at the Geffen Playhouse.
When asked about her string of alphabet-matching female leads, the two-time Tony Award nominee laughs and replies in a husky voice that registers somewhere between Elizabeth Ashley and Harvey Fierstein. “Really? It never occurred to me. But something I think is common in so many of my characters is a sense of anger. Being pissed off. Almost every one of them has this don’t-tell-me-what-to-do attitude.”
Clad in a black leather jacket, black top, blue jeans and sneakers, the 57-year old actress has just wrapped up a photo shoot astride a motorcycle in a Geffen-adjacent alleyway following a full day of rehearsal. Her trademark leonine hair and dimples cap a certain biker mama swagger that suits her considerable presence in the room. It’s late afternoon just before Christmas. While happy to engage, Turner is cautious about conserving her voice as well.
“Theater is not a weak or lazy person’s art form,” she offers. “I mean, it’s exhausting, frankly. Today I’ve run this show twice, so I’m a little worried. I don’t want to talk too much because I will.”
Not that Turner is a stranger to feats of theatrical physical stamina. She sustained long Broadway runs in 1990’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Best Actress Tony Award nomination), 2002’s The Graduate (after a successful 2000 West End production) and 2005’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? opposite Bill Irwin. It garnered a Tony Award for Irwin and nomination for Turner, subsequently transferring to London in 2006, and to the Kennedy Center and the Ahmanson in 2007 before finishing up on a national tour. However, unlike Martha predecessors Uta Hagen and Colleen Dewhurst who used matinee understudies, Turner performed the grueling 3.5-hour verbal slugfest eight times a week — and loved every minute of it.
“Stage acting is just the most alive feeling I know,” she explains. “Because every second you’re making decisions on whether to take the breath before or after the word. Has the other actor dropped the ball here, do I need to pick it up? Where’s the pace? Where’s the audience’s state of mind? Is it raining outside? Is it cold? Is it bright and sunny? Is it a matinee? So all these factors are continually streaming in and you are using all of them to make microsecond decisions for hours. It is vividly alive – and kind of addictive.”
Red Hot Rebel
Written by twin sister journalists Margaret Engel and Allison Engel, and directed by David Esbjornson, Red Hot Patriot premiered at the Philadelphia Theatre Company in March 2010. Margaret is a former Washington Post staff writer who runs the Alicia Patterson Journalism Foundation outside Washington, D.C., while Allison is associate director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities based at USC. The Engels team up again with Esbjornson for the new Geffen production.
According to an interview in politicsdaily.com, Margaret called her sister the day after the 62-year-old populist icon succumbed to breast cancer in 2007. “The day after Molly died I was so upset that her voice was gone that I called Allison and said we have to do a show about her. I felt she was our Mark Twain, our Will Rogers and by ‘ours,’ I meant the country’s.”
Famous for dubbing George W. Bush “Shrub,” the Austin-based Ivins appeared weekly in 400 newspapers at her peak. A highly sought-after public speaker, she also authored several bestsellers including Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You: Politics in the Clinton Years and Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America with Lou Dubose, among others.
Turner was the Engel sisters’ first choice. Because she’s a board member of People for the American Way Foundation, part of the progressive advocacy organization that she has belonged to for 21 years, they were able to deliver the script to her via a fellow PFAWer. The actress had previously met Ivins at several PFAW events.
“I certainly liked her right away,” she says when asked about first impressions. “I mean, not only because we share pretty close views on politics, responsibility and citizenship, but also because I truly appreciate her sense of humor. I just can’t help it. I need to laugh at things. I can’t take things all too seriously. It’s just boring. So, I appreciated that in her.”
The play’s first reading was held August 2009 at D.C’s Arena Stage. The subsequent 2010 Philadelphia Theatre Company debut attracted waves of Ivins devotees including numerous Texas friends and family members.
“I was a little anxious about Molly’s family,” Turner admits. “Her brother and her sister came, and her longtime assistant Betsy [Moon]. They attended at separate times, but each came backstage and hugged me. Every one of them cried and just said thank you for keeping her alive. So I figured, if the family was comfortable with my portrayal, then I was on the right track.”
RHP takes place in a dilapidated old newsroom where Ivins (Turner) reminisces about her family upbringing and journalistic career through the use of real life photos and anecdotes. It’s a solo tour de force (except for the occasional appearance of Matthew Van Oss as a copy clerk) tracing the six-foot-tall, red-haired writer’s journey from Houston socialite to Austin rabble-rouser to nationally respected political commentator.
The show documents Ivins’ improbable rise from the left-wing alt-weekly Texas Observer to the venerable New York Times, where editor Abe Rosenthal famously fired the colorful scribe for calling a New Mexico “community chicken-killing festival” a “gang-pluck.” While at the Dallas Times Herald in 1983, she went after Republican Congressman Jim Collins who said that the current energy crisis could be avoided if “…we didn’t use all that gas on school busing.” Ivins retorted with, “If his IQ slips any lower we’ll have to water him twice a day.”
“So much of this is a personality piece in lot of ways,” Turner admits. “But that was a lot of Molly’s power. She was a really delightfully warm, entertaining and compelling personality. But, over and above that, the thing that kind of really sits in my heart most is her use of the word ‘beloved’. She used to use it in her columns. I think it’s because she truly felt it. She had the kind of heart and soul that could hold all these people in her arms and sincerely love them. I think that’s just an extraordinary spirit.”
By Turner’s account, much of the Philadelphia script remains intact for the Geffen run. (Tina Packer tackled the role for a Shakespeare & Company production last August in the Berkshires.) Minor adjustments for rhythm and cadence have been made, but the majority of choices are lifted verbatim from Ivins’ writing. “It’s delicious to actually play with all these words and have them be so specific because they just taste good.”
Perhaps nowhere is Ivins’ sharp political commentary missed more than in this year’s current Republican presidential candidate race. Newt Gingrich as well as Texas Governor Rick Perry were prime targets for Ivins’ ridicule. She nicknamed Perry “Governor Goodhair” and penned an October 12, 2006 column for the Fort Worth Star Telegram rating his gubernatorial debate performance:
I sacrificed an hour Friday evening to watch the Texas gubernatorial debate on your behalf, since I knew none of you would do it. “The Coiffure” was in his usual form. As one opponent after another attacked his record, Gov. Rick Perry stood there proudly behind that rabid following he has so richly earned, “hey, a whole 35 percent of Texans want him re-elected – and simply disagreed. The Coiffure seemed to consider blanket denials a fully sufficient and adequate response.
When asked whether the Engels planned to incorporate any mention of the current race or Perry specifically in the show, Turner says no. “We don’t want this play to become too stuck. It should be about the issues rather than what’s happening today, though it’s very tempting to put in something because the material is there. I think we have to limit ourselves to just saying, ‘Next time when I tell you that a Texan should not be elected president, please pay attention.’ That’s about as far as we’ll go.”
Holland Taylor of Two and a Half Men fame recently starred in a solo show she penned and produced to critical acclaim in Chicago and at the Kennedy Center about another Austin political icon — former Texas Governor Ann Richards. Turner also knew the wry-witted Richards — both were tenants in the same Manhattan apartment building, an address Ivins frequently visited.
When asked about the improbable odds of two solo shows debuting about Texas’ most famous pair of political ball-busting females, Turner replied, “I think we should perform them in rep. Then we’d only have to do four shows a week.”
“They were strong women with a great sense of humor and terribly politically savvy,” she continues about Ivins and Richards. “They were both real experts. And it’s not as though Molly or Ann were simply the kind that would criticize. They always had ideas about how things could be changed or altered in such a way that would be positive or be more effective. So they weren’t just sniping at people. They were really knowledgeable about how a system could be worked.”
They also both battled alcoholism, a painful issue addressed in Red Hot Patriot. The hard- drinking reporter’s life caught up with Ivins, and her friends staged an intervention to stop the drunken floor show they’d come to detest.
“Having a friend tell you that they don’t love you anymore, they don’t love the drunk Molly Ivins show anymore, that’s got to be one of the toughest assignments a friend can ever have,” offers Turner. “And in those days, when she was really abusing alcohol, it was so much more socially acceptable. In fact, in the political world she moved in, it was a necessity almost. You had to kind of “out drink” the boys or outlast them anyway. So I don’t think the warning signs were up for her in the same way they would be for most people. Because to Molly and to that whole time, drinking was part of the job.”
Turner has played her share of alcoholic characters, including most recently a recovering alcoholic nun named Sister Jamison Connelly in Matthew Lombardo’s High, which closed after six days on Broadway last April.Â The show subsequently enjoyed a better reception in Boston, and a tour starring Turner is lined up after the Geffen engagement.
“She was out on the street,” adds Turner about her character. “Sister Jamie was homeless for three and a half years and then got her faith back working at this Catholic rehab center. Martha, we know, has always had alcohol trouble. Mrs. Robinson seriously had trouble. Now it comes to mind that drunk women are just more interesting.”
Turner wrote about her own battle with alcoholism in the 2008 autobiography Send Yourself Roses. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1992 and began drinking to alleviate its severe pain. What did that experience bring to her performances as these women?
“Well, I think perhaps more understanding than people who have never taken anything to excess,” she states purposely. “At the same time I’m very grateful. I feel very blessed that I did not go down that path. There were so many elements involved. Thank God for the medications that they have created for rheumatoid arthritis, because if I hadn’t gotten relief from some of those, I don’t know how deep I might have gone. But I didn’t. The new medications came along, and basically, this rheumatologist got me through this amazing time when I was told I would never walk again, which was not possible for me.
“So I think one thing I can feel isn’t simply about alcohol. I think it’s really about pain, and not just physical pain, but a kind of anguish. I think that’s present in all of these women also.”
A Natural Extension
Turner is booked with High through June. Then, she says, she needs to “hunker down” and make choices. Regional invitations for Red Hot Patriot are coming in, but there’s also a play she’s wants to direct but won’t divulge. She enjoyed helming the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2008 production of Crimes of the Heart and also teaches an occasional class at NYU called Practical Acting: Shut Up and Do It when she’s in town. She sees both as a natural extension of her three decades in the business, which include award-winning and nominated film roles in Romancing the Stone and Prizzi’s Honor (Golden Globe Awards), Peggy Sue Got Married (Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations), and War of the Roses (Golden Globe nomination), plus a recurring role last season as agent Sue Collini on Showtime’s Californication.
“Given the years of experience, I think of it sort of like a tree. Of course you’re going to grow another branch that will result in teaching. Of course, you’re going to grow another branch that will result in directing. I wish I could believe I’d grow a branch that would result in writing, but this I know will not happen because I am a lousy writer. I’m a very good re-writer, but I’m a very poor writer. To me, I think it’s a natural extension of the knowledge we’ve acquired over the years.”
Suddenly the chiming bells of London’s Big Ben fill the room. It’s Turner’s cellphone. Daughter Rachel Ann Weiss calls to tell her she received her first album. “It’s her own music,” the proud mother explains after hanging up. “I think she’s really talented. I mean, speaking as a professional, not just a mother.” But would Turner behave any differently if Weiss wasn’t as gifted? “I don’t even want to think about that! Oh, god. That would be heartbreaking.”
With Rachel grown and herself a single woman after 20 years of marriage, Turner admits she has a lot less responsibilities both financially and emotionally.
“I don’t need a lot in life,” she stresses. “I have a beautiful apartment that I love in New York. I’ve never been one to acquire many things. When I was starting out in high school, I said all I want is to make enough money so I don’t have to balance my checkbook everyday. I want to be able to put that out of my mind. I’ve got a lot more freedom in choices. This is another natural reason to gravitate more toward directing or even teaching now because I’m good at those, too.
“And I don’t have to prove myself over and over anymore that I can still carry this off. Okay, guys?” She laughs pointedly. “Been there, done that! Proven. Thirty-five years, okay? So I’ve got more air. It’s kind of freeing.”
As for future stage roles, Turner says she’s currently drawn to new plays rather than the classics. “I mean, it’s a great challenge to do a character that’s written in stone, but it’s really exciting to create new work as well. I have a voice throughout the process, which is really satisfying.”
She wishes more actors would keep their stage chops intact by revisiting the boards in between film or television gigs. But they’re too afraid to take the risk after years of relying on re-take options.
“A lot of people just won’t,” Turner emphasizes, then smiles. “I tried to get Michael Douglas once just to do [A.R. Gurney’s] Love Letters with me, right? Where you just sit and read! And he said, ‘No way, man. No way.’ He was terrified.”
On the other hand, she says some well-known stars want to jump on the Broadway bandwagon without any previous stage training. “This actress came backstage after Woolf at the Ahmanson. She said, ‘You know, maybe it’s time I just went and did Broadway, too.’ I said, ‘well, have you ever done much stage?’ She said, ‘No, but maybe it’s time I do Broadway.’”
Turner shakes her head in amazement. “Where did this mentality come from? She had this completely straightforward face. What? Anybody can do this? I don’t think so!”
Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins, presented by the Geffen Playhouse. Opens Jan. 11. Plays Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 3 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm and 7 pm. Through Feb 12. Tickets: $65-85. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. Westwood. 310-208-5454.www.geffenplayhouse.com.
***All Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins production photos by Mark GarvinPrint